Stories along the way: Ben Sollee to perform

Apr. 17, 2014 @ 09:00 AM

Like Maya Beiser, the duo 2Cellos and Durham cellist Shana Tucker, cellist Ben Sollee has pioneered new repertoire and styles for his instrument. Listeners may know him for his work with Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet, or from his three recordings – “Learning to Bend,” “Inclusions” and “Half-Made Man.”

Now, Sollee is adding dance and documentary to his concerts. He is still “experimenting with the show,” he said in a phone interview, and local audiences will get to see and hear his new approach when he performs this weekend at The Carolina Theatre and at the spring edition of the Shakori Hills Festival.
For the past six months, during touring, he has been documenting some of the people he meets along the way using the techniques of radio documentary. “As a traveling musician, I get a lot of opportunities to meet a lot of wonderful people,” Sollee said. “Storytelling has played a big role in my shows,” he said, and the addition of two dancers and radio interviews “is a way of putting some kinetic movement” into his concerts.
The theme of the interviews is healing. Among the interviewees are his grandmother, who was praised as a healer in Appalachia, and clock makers (“Time heals all wounds, but who heals time?” he said).
Sollee not only plays cello (in addition to bowing, he also plucks the strings and frequently plays chords), he sings and writes song lyrics. Born in Kentucky, he studied cello at the University of Louisville as well as in “a bunch of very smelly bars around the world,” in an open field in South Dakota, and busking in towns and cities. He sometimes tours by bike carrying his instrument, and sometimes rides his bike to concerts.
Eclecticism in music is a quality he came by as a child. His grandfather played fiddle, and his dad played jazz and rhythm and blues, and from a young age “I found myself participating socially” in music, Sollee said.
He has tried to combine that sense of musical community with his classical training. “As a classical musician, the fourth wall of the stage was very protected,” Sollee said. When he began stretching the repertoire to include blues, folk and many other styles, he “experienced some dissonance with teachers,” but he realized he needed to take what he could from their lessons and then follow his path musically.
When he is touring, he composes new pieces, and takes his cello into schools to try and encourage students to find that pursuit that sparks their interest, as the instrument did for him.
Sollee has been writing film scores and teaching, as well as touring. He cites “Radiolab,” “This American Life” and “The Kitchen Sisters” as examples of what he calls the current “golden age” of radio documentary. He would like to make a radio documentary of the new concerts that incorporate dance and documentary. “We’re going to present it at these shows and try to tell the most captivating story that we can,” he said. “I can’t pass up this opportunity to travel around the world … and not share those experiences through storytelling.” 

GO and DO

WHAT: Cellist Ben Sollee in concert
WHEN: Today [Friday], 8 p.m.
WHERE: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
ADMISSION: For tickets, call 919-560-3030 or visit
ALSO: Sollee also will perform at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Carson’s Grove Stage at the Shakori Hills Festival, at Shakori Hills Farm, 1439 Henderson Tanyard Road, Pittsboro. For tickets, visit